Unmanned Logistics Support
21st century robotic beasts of burden
Logistics convoys have been high priority – and highly vulnerable – targets for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines, and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) attacks not only have killed or injured drivers and security personnel, but also delayed delivery of vital supplies – from water to munitions – to forward operating bases (FOBs) and distantly deployed combat units.
The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), Army, and special operations forces are looking to at least partially resolve those problems by reducing the number of humans involved in dull, dirty, and dangerous (DDD) tasks through the use of unmanned ground vehicles and aircraft. In addition to increasing safety, robotic cargo delivery also frees personnel and manned platforms for other duties.
While not all approaches have been or are likely to be used during the drawdown in Afghanistan, research and development (R&D) and field-testing have included unmanned helicopters and trucks. Work also is continuing on legged – walking – robotic “mules” that can accompany small units into the field, carrying more supplies per mission with less impact on individual soldiers’ packs.
A robotics strategic white paper developed by the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and Army Tank Automotive, Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is helping identify requirements and drive capabilities development for future Army robotic logistics, security, engineering, and medical applications.
An Army G-4 (Logistics) study – “Future Modular Force Resupply Mission for Unmanned Aircraft Systems” – concluded a cargo UAS (unmanned aircraft system) offers a viable alternative to ground convoys in supporting locations that are difficult or impossible to reach by truck. That has supported the Army Logistics Innovation Agency’s (LIA’s) active involvement with USMC unmanned cargo helicopter field tests in Afghanistan.
Every war and theater of operations is unique, with new requirements and technologies combining to bring new systems into service, often forever changing combat concepts of operation (CONOPS) and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). That has been especially true in more than a decade of war in Southwest Asia, with new threats and challenges ranging from IEDs to a lack of infrastructure across Afghanistan’s complex terrain.
As a result, ground convoys and manned cargo helicopter flights have faced severe and ongoing operational challenges that have hindered the delivery of needed supplies to forward combat units while endangering the lives of those making deliveries. Replacing manned delivery systems with robots also frees those assets for other missions and gives commanders greater flexibility in the field.
Robotic logistics concepts that have attracted the most attention in the past decade have centered on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and both rolling and walking unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs).
Aerial Systems Development
One field test already deemed successful – and extended one year beyond its original six-month trial in Afghanistan – has been the USMC Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aerial System (CRUAS), using an unmanned Kaman K-MAX helicopter.
“The K-MAX is undergoing a military user assessment in response to a JUONS [Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement] and to date is doing exactly what we anticipated it to do,” according to Maj. Nicholas Neimer at Marine Corps Aviation Headquarters. “[By the end of August 2012] it had moved 1.76 million pounds of cargo in more than 650 sorties, primarily from one FOB to another. Once this is completed, we plan to further identify where this capability can fit into the Marine Corps mix in terms of logistics.”
The Marines’ CRUAS is part of a Department of Defense (DoD)-wide unmanned logistics development effort that also includes the LIA’s investigation of how a cargo UAS (CUAS) can be incorporated into a future Integrated Logistics Aerial Resupply (ILAR) concept. LIA and the USMC are sharing analyses and test results to develop a resupply template for use in future cargo studies.
“The terrain and weather combined with counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan constrain traditional logistics resupply methods and have presented significant operational challenges that frequently place soldiers and equipment in extreme high risk,” according to the LIA. “The cargo UAS project is tasked with developing a business case that assesses the technical, operational and fiscal viability to acquire, operate and maintain a cargo UAS capability for resupply to augment existing cargo delivery systems.”